Editorial: On the tenth anniversary of CCWP

This year is the 10th Anniversary of the founding of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. It is a time for celebrating our history as we did at our wonderful anniversary event on June 9th. It is also is a time for reflection, evaluation and looking forward!
When we are asked ?what have you accomplished, what has changed for women prisoners in the past ten years?? the answer might not be immediately obvious. Despite all the consistent efforts of our members inside prison and outside to change conditions and challenge the prison industrial complex, health care is still abominable, overcrowding is getting worse, life-term prisoners are not receiving parole, and women inside still face sexual harassment and abuse from correctional officers. So what is there to celebrate?
Ten years ago, the fact that women were the fastest growing sector of the prison population was a well kept secret, and the problems they faced were largely invisible. CCWP?s founding member, Charisse Shumate changed that when she became the lead plaintiff of the class action lawsuit against the CDC, challenging the gross neglect of the prison health care system. Women prisoners over the years have led the way in developing peer education and organizing strategies which have empowered women to deal with HIV and hepatitis C, to file habeas petitions and 602 grievances, prepare for parole hearings and initiate petition campaigns against abusive guards. They joined with people outside to form a grassroots organization which could advocate for women prisoners on both sides of the walls.
From the start, CCWP has been committed to ?raising public consciousness? by giving voice to women prisoners. The Fire Inside provides a forum for women inside and for communicating and organizing. Inspired by the determination of our sisters inside, family members and advocates have organized rallies, spoken at conferences and classes, written letters to the editor of local papers. Most recently, we produced a video about the fight of Charisse Shumate and her sister-prisoners for basic health care. Together we have helped change the terms of the debate about prisons and the level of public awareness has changed significantly. Now when you go to the worldwide web and type in women prisoners, you see 14,300,000 entries on this subject and the CCWP website is at the top of the list!
But we have not just built awareness. We have built active solidarity between family members, advocates and incarcerated women through consistent visits and joint projects. We have created a community of people who are genuinely dedicated to changing the institutional violence, and the racial, economic and gender inequities that are at the foundation of the prison industrial complex. Building community hasn?t always been easy. We have had to struggle to be honest about the way in which racism operates not only in the prison system but also among all of us to keep us divided. We have also tried to overcome other walls that separate us, between straight and queer, between abled and disabled, between people of different religions and cultural backgrounds.
Since 1995, we have been determined to promote the leadership of women prisoners and former prisoners. We are particularly proud that on our 10th anniversary, our new executive director, Yvonne Cooks, is a former prisoner and a woman of color! We are also proud that our organization continues to be based on the work of volunteers who together contribute hundreds of hours each year.
Clearly, we have monumental tasks ahead of us. But we have laid a solid foundation to sustain this fight. We are especially excited that our new Compañeras project is beginning to address the specific, aggravated problems of immigrant women prisoners. We have learned and accomplished a lot over the past 10 years and we sincerely hope that all of our readers will continue to join us in ?Caring Collectively for Women Prisoners? in the decade to come!
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[To remember the founders of CCWP who have since passed away, we print their pictures throughout this issue.]
Charisse Shumate, lead plaintif in the class action suit Shumate v. Wilson, which charged that CDC?s medical practices constitute cruel and unusual punishment. CCWP was formed to support the organizing inside that led to over seventy women prisoners participating in the law suit.
Sherri Chapman?s abysmal medical care was investigated by Amnesty Internatio-nal, which helped bring a spot-light on the issue. She refused to accept second-class medical care for herself or others.
Judy Ricci, HIV and HEP C peer health educator, hospice volunteer, tireless fighter for women prisoners? right to be healthy and well
Patrisia Gutierrez Contreras, third life term prisoner to receive compassionate release in California?s history. She held that as painful as it might be to struggle for justice without seeing signs of change, it is far better to die not having one?s hopes realized than to die without knowing hope at all.

Victim #1

A victim of this insane prison society
Never ending ridicule, distributed systematically
Freight in my eyes
Living in a bloody disguise
Just a mold among all women
I’m labeled as quite a sin
By the system put to shame
But I am not the one to blame
I fight for me
To end this strife

Is anyone out there?

Anonymous, VSPW
It’s a shame that a large part of the staff who work here at VSPW are immature men who regularly verbally assault us. They take pride in inflicting rules, not enforcing them.
The verbal and emotional abuse is the norm. The men don’t even respect the female staff. I’d be embarrassed if I was continually getting pay raises while the state’s youth go without school materials. It is a sad time for California. Locking people up is not the answer. Rehabilitation is a term that only exists on paper.
The system loves it when all we do is eat noodles and zone out to the TV, it makes their unlocking doors job (which is the rough point of their day) that much easier.
This institution does not promote recovery. The substance abuse program is primarily concerned with bodies in the beds so they get paid. We are warehoused like cattle.
Nutrition here is a joke. There isn’t enough iron, protein, green vegetables, or calcium, which contributes to various health problems over time. It would save the state money in the long run in medical costs if we had proper nutrition here.
The defeminization of having our hair up 24 hours a day, even in our non-programming time is just a form of control, to keep women feeling bad about themselves. This institution is like going from one abusive relationship to another, and nobody even hears your voice because you’re behind walls.
Recidivism means this place is a revolving door. There isn’t anything at this institution to show you tools to change your attitudes or habits.
Women, how do you cope? What’s going on at your institution to promote healing, recovery? Give us some ideas. We need help to stop the madness that infests VSPW. We need outside help, so the public is aware of the abuse that is daily here.
Please help.

The Impact of Incarceration on Children of U.S. Prisoners

Emily Peterson
[We reprint a small part of a research paper written for a class by the daughter of Sara Olson, currently inprisoned at CCWF]
An enormous piece of my family went missing when my mother was sent away to prison. Most children may not understand what’s going on. Why is their parent gone? They may have had no warning.
Children are the hidden victims of the criminal justice system. Having my mother taken away from my family was a very traumatizing event. She now sits in a cell 3,000 miles away from home, and the prison makes it especially difficult for us to be close to her.
The growth of the prison system has dramatically impacted the lives of millions of children. In 1999 U.S. prisons held parents of over 1.5 million children, an increase of over 500,000 since 1991. Children of color are far more likely to have a parent in prison. Black children are nine times more likely to have a parent in prison than white children. Latino children are three times more likely.
When parents have to go away, children feel sad or worried. They may feel abandoned or feel they may never see the parent again. Not a lot of information is given, and many children may worry that something terrible may happen to their parent while in prison. It can hurt a child very much to know that their mother is being treated harshly in prison. I worry about that every day.
Children may feel alone when their mom is gone. We may sometimes feel like we could have done something to prevent this, or be mad at our parent for getting into the trouble that sent them away. The stigma of incarceration is significant. Children get taunted and may be avoided as being part of a “bad” family with criminals in it. Children may feel ashamed of their imprisoned parent. The stigma makes it difficult to seek help.
There are very few resources where families and children can go to ease the impact of incarceration. Few prisons offer child friendly services. I have to fly to San Francisco and then drive three hours to finally visit my mom. Then there are motel and car rental costs. I am lucky I can afford to make that trek. Most families don’t have the means. Half of the children with mothers in prison never visit them because of the lack of opportunity. I can write letters and receive phone calls. Most young children can’t write and those phone calls are incredibly expensive.
For most families, prison tears them apart. We felt that it would do the same for us. But when my mom was sent away, my family realized that the love we had for her was even stronger. Prison visits are the key to helping children stay in contact with their parents, and helping them with the trauma of not having them around.

Messages from inside

Chopper, CCWF
We miss and love you! Salutes to “Happy,” JoAnn, and Juju-Mama! CCWP is a blessing. We’ll miss Christina and we will embrace Yvonne.
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Wanda Brown, CCWF
I appreciate you all taking the time and effort to talk, listen, and to care about our needs. And don’t give up on us, this place can be really negative but you put positivity in our lives. I appreciate it all and pray they won’t run you away.
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E. Sherrie Smith, CCWF
We women here at CCWF would like to send a very special honor of thanks to Urszula, Diana, Sally, Christy, and all the rest of the volunteer team at CCWP. Thank you so much for all your help over the years.
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Hakim Anderson, CCWF
Oppression among women in prison is prevalent. Thanks to CCWP we fight for humanity.
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Sara Olson, CCWF
Thanks for bringing a little bit of the outside inside, for spinning our stories outward.
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Nick Bottom, CCWF
I would like to honor a FRIEND who touched many lives inside as well as outside there walls. Kerri (K-Loc) Broughton will always be remembered as a TRUE FRIEND to many as well as a BLESSING from God. May the Heavens hold you tenderly. A special thanks to the ladies of CCWP for all the support and care you’ve given CCWF. Thanks a million. God Bless.
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Genea Scott, CCWF
While being here I have had the opportunity and pleasure of meeting and receiving support from CCWP staff and volunteers. Thank you all… A shout to Christina! Keep up the good work wherever you may go in life you will succeed. Look toward the sky and keep smiling. You’re a star fr many of us, good luck girl and see you soon. Welcome Yvonne Cooks to CCWP and into our lives. Peace and love.
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Linda Field, CCWF
I would like to take this time to remember some of our lost sisters. Diana was the first to die here because of medical negligence (July ’91). We lost Birdie Foleu. I lost two roommates, Annie Jackson and Minerva Gonzales. Let’s not forget Charisse Shumate and all the others. Please dedicate the next decade to all of the sisters burried but who will live in our hearts.
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Bambi Boyer, VSPW
Thank you and God bless your organization for giving a voice to those that society has forgotten.
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Sammy Pierce, CCWF
From the bottom of my heart I want to thank Urszula for coming into my life and showing me that some things are worth fighting for. Urszula has stood by me through this long 2-year trip fighting for Native American rights.
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Mary Shields, CCWF
Diana, you have been a blessing to my life. So know that no words can truly say what I feel in my heart about you. Thank you for caring so much about me and others. You are a blessing to all because you are a very special lady. Thank you again for making a big difference in my world.
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Bea Smith-Dyer, CCWF
I have been told to expect miracles. CCWP has been our ray of light through this journey of darkness. Love, Bea.
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Medina Ibbotson, CCWF
Over the years I’ve needed help woth medical and personal issues. Without the help of CCWP I wouldn’t have a place to turn.
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Marilyn Buck, Federal Correctional Institution, Dublin, Ca.
You live your intentions though sisters who struggle from outside after crossing over. Carry on the tradition!
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Jane Dorotik, CCWF
May we be blessed with the future of our choice. May we live to see a thousand reasons to rejoice. In solidarity, Jane.